Brooklyn Literary Spaces That Have Survived Gentrification
Writers explore where the borough’s artistic roots still thrive in part 2 of our oral history on gentrification in literary Brooklyn
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The Brooklyn Letters project is a series of oral histories of literary Brooklyn from 1999 to 2009, presented by Electric Literature with support from the New York City Department of Cultural Affairs.
This is the third installment of Brooklyn Letters. You can read earlier oral histories here.
In order for history to be recorded it also needs to be preserved: in photos, through oral traditions, in letters, or through a continued existence. Sweeping changes don’t totally eradicate the past, but without records we can easily lose those memories. Gentrification affects marginalized and low-income communities hard, but our communities are also pushing back by preserving the past, or at least its echoes — from archives to events to buildings, like the Midland Malls (erected in 1907) welcoming citizens into Jamaica Estates or the still-standing row houses in BedStuy. The spirit of spaces both commercial and residential are upheld by individuals, new organizations, and volunteers who hold fast to their connection to our lineage and our voices.
The continuation of this portion of Brooklyn Letters focuses on spaces surviving (with your help) in Brooklyn. These spaces include the remnants of the all-Black town of Weeksville, whose mission ties into literacy; the Lesbian History Archives preserving feminist and LGBTQ+ history; PoC-owned eateries with food that instills a real feeling of home for Asian/Pacific Islanders; and the public spaces that have encouraged writers to find their voice. These are the heartening stories and spaces that continue to exist, continue to thrive, and continue to need our support.
Bridgett M. Davis [author of Into the Go-Slow & The World According to Fannie Davis]: Weeksville Heritage Center is located in Crown Heights. Weeksville was the first free African American community in Brooklyn. And one of the first free Black museums in the country like Seneca Gulge. At its height they had 400 or 500 families that lived in this area that we now call Crown Heights, Buffalo Avenue. They were, as you would imagine, free Blacks and recently enslaved runaway Blacks who found freedom, who knew to come to this community and be a part of it. It was founded by a man named James Weeks, that’s how they got their community name Weeksville. And it had a church, it had its own school, and it had its own newspapers that were thriving. They could vote because they had land, that was the law in New York — to have a certain amount of land if you were to vote. So that was the thinking behind pulling together this community and bringing people in, and convincing them to purchase plots, etcetera. Believe it or not gentrification are what ultimately caused the community to dissolve and not be as strong. And eventually sort of became less concentrated with African Americans. So into the early 20th century it became less and less of an established community. Fast forward, 50 years ago, some Pratt [Institute] architectural students actually discovered the four original houses.
Hugh Ryan [author of When Brooklyn Was Queer]: The Lesbian Herstory Archives are super important and they’ve managed to stay open, welcoming, and maintain some of that older Brooklyn vibe even as the years pass. They started in Manhattan and moved to the Slope around… I wanna say the late ’90s but I might be wrong. They were super helpful with a number of things, but particularly they have the papers andephemera of a founding member named Mabel Hampton, along with 20-plus or so hours of interviews done with her by the founders of the LHA. She was a Black lesbian dancer and domestic worker, who got her start on the stage (and as a lesbian) at Coney Island in 1920. The interviews with her are incredible, and they offer really rare insight into the world of queer women, Black and white, in NYC between 1920–1980 or so. They also have a lot of random things that I used: a huge library of books, lots of what they call “subject files,” which are basically clippings on different topics, and they’re all volunteer. They have a live-in archivist, and they give you tea when you come over! It feels welcoming.
Naima Coster [author of Halsey Street]: For me, Brooklyn was the place of my coming of age and really starting to understand myself as a writer while I was a girl and then a young woman. So, I wasn’t plugged in during the time that I lived in Fort Greene to any kind of adult literary scene. The places that were really valuable for my formation were places like the Brooklyn Public Library on Washington Avenue in Clinton Hill. And then also Fort Greene Park, which is a park in the neighborhood I grew up in. Which has a rich literary history of writers that I was aware of as a child. So I knew Richard Wright in Fort Greene Park. I knew Walt Whitman — even though I didn’t know who he was — was a figure important in the founding of the park and who the public housing projects across the park were named after.
Davis: This is the 50th anniversary of the rediscovery of those [Weeksville] houses. Three of them are [still around]. One burned. Three of them are still there and one of the things they do is they offer tours of the regular houses. They sit right along the road that now faces this beautiful new structure. They’re right next to Kingsborough Housing Projects. The headquarters was in one of the houses for years. For many years. For the first executive director in attempting to get these houses preserved and to create a kind of real sort of community effort to help people understand their history, and to build programming around it etc. They are truly the neighborhood. They are truly in Central Brooklyn. So the mission — there are many things that are important for this center to do — but it’s really trying to create a contemporary thrust that’s based on the original principles the community was founded on.
Coster: I also knew that Fort Greene Park has a different visibility culturally in Brooklyn because of film, because of music — thinking about Spike Lee. And so for me, the park, although it was a place where I played as a girl, also felt like an important site of cultural history in Brooklyn and in stages of production. I felt very aware of that as a kid, that the park in Brooklyn was a place that was known and was seen in the culture. I think that kind of created an important sense that if someone is living in the neighborhood, that creative inheritance was mine and open to me.
Lisa Ko [author of The Leavers]: Mountain Provence is a sanctuary. I really didn’t need to live in [Williamsburg] with four thousand bars when I didn’t even drink. So Mountain Provence opened maybe early on from when we came here, but my partner found out about it because a friend of his in the Filipino community was doing an event here, a reading or something. It felt really nice to see — since both our families were from the Philippines — to see a Filipino owned cafe. It is, it is really very motherly, and they also use family recipes in their food. I think that for that feeling for me living as Asian-Americans with family in the Philippines in a primarily White neighborhood, it felt really familiar. The owner’s dad would often be here too.
Coster: The Clinton Hill Branch of the Brooklyn Public Library on Washington Avenue, it’s a place I spent a lot of time just around books and borrowing books where I had unlimited access to books. It was just down the street from my elementary school, PS 11 on Waverly Avenue. And it was a big part of my formation as a reader just to have access to those books. And unlimited access because they were free. At that time there was such a strong connection between the school and the library.
Ryan: My go-tos are always the libraries. I use them everywhere as places to work and I do a lot of research in them. [The Brooklyn Public Library] is great. Especially on a hot day where you can’t find wifi, a place to plug in, or a bathroom anywhere. I also use the Brooklyn Historical Society, especially when I’m doing Brooklyn-based research.
Davis: And so Rob [Fields] as executive director is all about figuring out all kinds of ways, mostly through programming and events and also through partnerships and through liaisons and through opening the doors for the community can have resources, etcetera. There’s just a lot of things that are at play. It’s in a way, Brooklyn’s biggest secret because whenever someone enters they go “What? I had no idea.” That’s what everyone says when they arrive. But I like that larger vision of: What does it mean to bring a literary sensibility and presence to a place in a space that’s not traditionally used to it on a consistent basis?
Ko: I love the Greenwood Cemetery. I live near it now. It’s one of my favorite spaces in New York. I jokingly awarded myself a writing residency there one year when I got rejected from everywhere I applied to. I decided I would be the writer in residence at Greenwood Cemetery. They have a lot of benches, and there are these really beautiful mausoleum type things for the very, very wealthy. You can’t go into them, but they have these almost like porches, and some of these have these benches that are meant to sit on, so you can sit there. They have two or three lakes with benches around them. There’s a lot of open space. I feel like in the city open space is really at a premium. It’s really hard to find somewhere to just sit, read, write, and be quiet. It’s a nice spot, especially on the weekdays when you have an afternoon free or have a flexible schedule. I would go there and not see anybody, which is kind of creepy. You would be sitting there, and you’d look up and realize, “I’m surrounded by ten thousand dead people, and I’m the only person alive.”
I love Greenwood Cemetery. I jokingly awarded myself a writing residency there one year when I got rejected from everywhere I applied to.
Coster: Another site that was important me is called Outpost Cafe. It might be called Outpost Cafe & Bar on Fulton Street. I’m not quite sure when it opened, it was around after I finished college and came back to Brooklyn. And it’s a place I did a lot of writing while I was living in BedStuy. And it definitely had the kind of aesthetic of new Brooklyn. Exposed brick and really nice fair trade coffee and a garden in the back. In 2011, they hosted a cool event for me that I think was my first event really as a writer. I was in conversation with community residents who came with a visual artist. It was after I had published a piece on gentrification on Fort Greene in The New York Times called “When Brooklyn Was Mine” and Outpost reached out to me and said, “Hey can we host a conversation with you and with a visual artist and local community leaders?” And I said “yes, let’s do that.” And it was sort of my first event as a writer though I didn’t have a book at the time. I was only 24, 25. But it was great! That the place I had gone and kind of felt ambivalent about but enjoyed the coffee, and enjoyed being there hosted this really conversation that brought different bulks and when you do events you never know who’s gonna show up. But there was this really great range of folks in terms of age and in terms of race and ethnicity. It was great to be a part of that conversation. And I know that they also hosted music, but I’m not sure how many other literary events they did.
Ryan: I use the main BPL branch a lot because of the Brooklyn collection, but I also use my local, which is called the Saratoga Library Branch, I believe. It’s been very helpful in certain ways. They have an incredible library of Brooklyn books, things you can’t find elsewhere. And incredible photos too. But they’re very small and don’t have a lot of staffing. So it can be hard sometimes. But their main library space is a great location to work in. I also think, just being a writer and not having much money, I’m always looking for spaces that are free.
Davis: There were always different efforts over the years to do things around writing. But it was like let’s try to really create something more formal and consistent because Weeksville’s history traditionally given what they were, they were all about literacy. They had people who like I said were runaway slaves, so you can see they still have facsimiles of these things and they’ve blown them up and they’re in the lobby. There’s a page from their original newspaper. Some of it is just the alphabet, printed to help people learn to read. And meanwhile you have one of the most prominent African American journalists who actually lived in the community, we had all kind of people: tradesman, teachers, typical segregated Black people. And in their case self-segregated. So it felt like something we could do for ourselves and protect ourselves. I feel like what we’re doing is a direct sort of temporary model of where Weeksville began.
Brooklyn Letters is supported by a grant from the New York City Department of Cultural Affairs.